Champions League? Euro 2020? Coronavirus could hit the soccer world very hard, very soon

Some fans at Tuesday's Napoli-Barcelona Champions League clash in Italy wore masks to protect against the coronavirus. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Coronavirus

In the grand scheme of things, we’re not real worried about the soccer. When a global pandemic like the coronavirus breaks out, sports are trivial. But the effect on soccer has already been significant nonetheless.

Most directly, the virus has reportedly killed a female pro futsal player in Iran and infected a male third division player in Italy. More broadly, the Chinese Super League, amid the epicenter of the virus, has delayed the start of its season indefinitely. Japan’s J1 League has likewise postponed its first few slates of games, and South Korea has followed suit. This in turn has disrupted the start of the Asian version of the Champions League, which spans from Japan through the Middle East. 

Meanwhile in Italy, four games in top-flight Serie A were postponed last weekend, creating a scheduling nightmare in the final months of the season. Thursday’s Europa League game between Inter Milan and Ludogorets was played behind closed doors to help prevent spreading the disease in Italy’s north, where it has been concentrated. This weekend, Sunday’s Inter-Juventus tilt in Turin will be played behind closed doors, and five other games are expected to be played under the same conditions. 

Curiously, while Inter will give its fans their money back for not being able to attend Thursday’s home match in person, Juve is refusing to do the same, keeping the gate receipts even though nobody will actually get to enter the stadium. Weirder still, Sky Italia, the subscription channel that airs the Italian league domestically, had planned to make the game available for free on a sister channel, only to be told it couldn’t because it only controlled the pay-TV rights.

Then there’s Tottenham Hotspur star Dele Alli, who was also “affected” by the virus insofar as he made fun of an Asian man on social media while wearing a mask in an airport, for which he’s being investigated and might be suspended. 

Yet the impact of the coronavirus could be far more profound still. When you game out the potential scenarios, the disruption could be staggering and reverberate for several years. 

Kickoff of the Chinese Super League has been delayed by the coronavirus, with China being the disease's epicenter. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

The effect on the European club season, to say nothing of the various leagues in Asia, could be sweeping. If the virus intensifies, it’s entirely possible that even playing games behind closed doors could pose too much of a risk. Bringing teams into cities under siege by the virus might get too dangerous. That would leave UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, and Serie A to decide whether to postpone or cancel those games, potentially pushing several major clubs – as most of Italy’s big teams are in the north – out of domestic and European competitions. And that’s assuming there are no major outbreaks in other European countries.

Then there’s Euro 2020, slated to begin in just over three months. For the first time, the tournament will be co-hosted by all of a dozen countries. That means endless travel for teams and, worse still, fans. This format was probably never the best idea, but it couldn’t come at a worse time, especially when you consider that Italy is one of those 12 countries, even if its designated stadium is in Rome, outside of the affected area – for now. 

UEFA has said it isn’t yet clear if the tournament will be affected by the virus. But it isn’t such a leap. In 2003, the Women’s World Cup was moved from China to the United States as a consequence of the SARS outbreak.

Which is exactly why urgent and valid questions are being posed about the Summer Olympics scheduled for Tokyo this summer. The World Athletic Indoor Championships, to take place in Nanjing, China, have already been pushed back a year to 2021. The Chinese Grand Prix has been postponed as well. 

Japan has been hit hard by the coronavirus too. Thus far, the International Olympic Committee has said it is focused on keeping the games in Tokyo, starting on July 24. It seems uninterested in accounting for the possibility that the Olympics could grow into a major public health liability largely because the IOC really has no good alternatives.

If the Olympics are eventually canceled, the impact on the U.S. women’s national team would be drastic. While the Olympic soccer tournament is an unloved, under-23 event on the men’s side, it is the second-biggest tournament on the women’s side, after the World Cup. And the American women have won the thing four out of the six times it was held. For several aging stars like Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn, it could in fact be their final turn on the big stage. 

These forecasts, while possibly alarmist, suppose that the virus sustains at more or less its current levels in the coming months. Or it could spread further, and the effect on soccer could be much worse. 

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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